How to Sit Properly
Personal posture is such an important thing to the health and well being of the body that it seems almost criminal that it is not given more attention. You are essentially a physical structure like a house or a bridge and just like these structures, your alignment must be perfect or else you will begin to feel stress that will eventually lead to a structural collapse.
Certainly you are a moving object unlike a static building, you also have amazing powers of self healing but if you continue to defy the laws of nature, as they apply to all the physical things on this planet, then you will eventually come to a point where you will not be able to heal yourself any longer. You see this in those chronic back problems that are so prevalent right now.
Certainly you are moving, but for large portions of your day, you will find yourself in static positions where you might move very little for hours. A great example of this is the office worker that sits in front of a monitor for hours with very little movement at all. The average office worker will actually sit in one position for six to eight hours a day!
”62% of workers routinely end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% report strained eyes, 38% complain of hand pain, and 34% report difficulty in sleeping due to work-related stress.”
Integra Survey, 2000. As published on the Tim Ferris blog.
62 % is a big number and one that can be alleviated to some degree. I hope to give you some options in this article that will help with this.
I personally like to separate sitting postures by regions, The two that we are going to go into detail here are; Chinese sitting style, the Japanese sitting style. These two styles of sitting are my favorites and are the ones that I would recommend to anyone because they are versatile and helpful. Both of these styles have their strengths and weaknesses but with them you can get a solid understanding of your body’s dynamics and how to use either or a variance of both to get just what you need.
The first style that I will discuss is what I like to call the Chinese sitting style. This style of sitting is very practical and once you experience it and understand it, you tend to ask yourself why you had not thought of that sooner. This sitting posture is used a lot in Taoist sitting meditation and is a natural extension of the posture that one ideally assumes when one practices Tai Chi.
So that you get a basic idea on how to do this, take a cross legged seat on the ground. If this is difficult for you, find a nice chair and just take a seat on that. I don’t want you to lean your back on the back rest of the chair but instead I want you to sit yourself with your back straight and relaxed but not supported.
To do this, you have to think of your back as being made up of a number of individual blocks that are stacked one on top of the other. Your vertebra are literally blocks that are stacked this way, think of yourself as building a block column of 33 blocks, you are stacking these blocks one on top of the other until you have all 33 stacked all the way up.
As you can imagine, this can be a tricky endeavor and if you don’t make sure to stack the blocks perfectly, they will topple over on you. Unfortunately, you have built this 33 block column on a rickety table that keeps tipping one way and then other. If your blocks lean too far one way, they will fall but if the table goes too far the other way they will also fall. The only way to make sure that your blocks stay up is to hold on to the side of the table and make sure that it is perfectly balanced so that your blocks aren’t tipping forward or backward. In all this craziness, there will be a point where the blocks are perfectly balanced; they won’t be falling forward or backward and they will be stacked in a perfectly straight line. This is called perfect alignment and is the perfect sitting posture of old.
Now, either sitting on the floor cross legged or on a chair, align your 33 blocks so that one is supporting the other…good. Now you have essentially a column that you have to balance, make sure that it is neither falling forward or backwards. There is the one sweet spot where your column is not falling one way or the other. Here you are in perfect balance. Aligned with the earth.
This is the litmus test; relax your entire body.
Do you fall? If you relax every muscle, every tissue; does your body stay seated? On your first attempt, most like not.
If your neck falls forward into your chest or if your body collapses into your stomach, then you have not stacked your 33 blocks properly. In order to fix this, I recommend a couple of simple and fun little exercise:
1) Find a nice straight wall and put your back against it. You will find of course that you back is not perfectly straight but curvy. Slowly push back on the wall so that your spine begins to align with the wall. Try to get your back as straight as possible without pain. Let your neck stay curvy, it’s not meant to be perfectly straight.
2) Get one of those big core exercise balls or a nice big beach ball and try to hug it. If you don’t have a ball, pretend that you are hugging a big beach ball like that. Sit and hug the ball. This exercise is great because it allows you to take a seat and feel your way to a perfectly aligned back.
If you can stack your 33 blocks perfectly and balance them so that you don’t have to use one bit of muscle to hold yourself up, then you have success. If you feel any tension whatsoever then realign yourself so that the tension goes away and you are totally relaxed and loose.
What does this have to say about personal psychology? Can this posture be both a practical sitting posture and a metaphor for how you should conduct yourself? Let me know.
The Chinese sitting posture is wonderful for sitting without moving for hours. It’s wonderful for long meeting or for when you have to type for long periods of time. The disadvantages are that if you have to do a lot of moving on your chair, you will have to do a lot of re adjusting which can be difficult. Moving the mouse on a computer for example can be difficult while trying to maintain this posture.
For a more energetic sitting posture, I recommend the Japanese sitting method. This posture is more dynamic and is used in archery, tea ceremony and Zen meditation.
The best way to learn this sitting technique is to kneel on the ground placing your bum and the weight of your body on the bottoms of your feet. This is a very popular Japanese sitting posture and you will see it most clearly in Martial Arts academies, specifically in Aikido.
If you sit in this way, your back will naturally arch so that your back takes on some of the properties of an archer’s bow. The human back is actually very similar in curvature to an unstrung Japanese bow and when taught how to begin to master this sitting technique, many masters use this comparison.
The spine therefore has to naturally want to arch backwards a bit; as they say when training in Zen meditation, “ your back must be kept straight, and the anus must want to look up at the sky”. What you are doing by sitting this way is creating a natural tension so that you back arches backwards a little, your anus as they say tries to look up and your stomach pops out slightly from the dynamic of this tension. You are essentially drawing a bow, and you will find that your spine will take on this very feeling.
Never overdo it though! The idea is that with the slightest of effort on your part, you draw the bow and the pull from gravity on your body does most of the work. The little tension should feel good. It is the slightest of tension coupled with the pull of gravity, which creates this nice taunt feeling. It’s pretty easy to master and a joy to implement.
Once this drawing of the bow is mastered, you once again want to balance your spine so that it is not falling forward or backwards but it is perfectly balanced.
The Japanese sitting posture is better when you have to lean forwards and backwards constantly in your day. As long as you keep that bow taunt, you will be able to reach for mouse, stapler or whatever you need. When you are done, just go back to a nice well balance sitting angle where there is no tension on your muscle or tendons and the bow is supporting all of your weight, without effort, and relaxed.
The disadvantages of the Japanese sitting method are that at first you can feel a bit of strain on your lower back as you get used to this method but if you continue, this should go away and you should be able to sit like this for hours. Also if you have a history or lower back problem, this might be too much for you and you might want to avoid this sitting method.
Remember if there is strain, you are arching too much. It should be a comfortable, relaxing tautness.
My final recommendation to you is that you get a seat cushion. The kind of cushion that I recommend are the donut cushions. These things are great and I don’t know how I survived without one.
You can either get the foam donut or the inflatable ones. I have the foam one and I like very much but you can give the blow up one a go and experiment with air pressure to see how if this is better for you. This cushion is ideal for either sitting style described above and will help you to achieve a more balanced sitting posture. You can get these cushions at a geriatrics or rehabilitation stores. You will begin to alleviate most of your current pain when you begin to sit properly.